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Tourists infest churches, a pilgrimage story

We left the Hotel du Commerce in Bar-sur-Seine and started on the road back toward Koblenz and Ivo’s house. Beyond hills of the Champagne, the landscape opened again into Kansas-like plains and rolling hills covered with wheat and corn fields to the horizon. The French villages, like those we had driven through the previous days, grew more distant from one another and then disappeared. Miles of farm fields and woods lay between towns. Isolated farmhouses dotted the plains. Here and there a bank of grain elevators punctured the sky.

The landscape broke up as we approached Troyes. Little villages stood beneath hilltop castles and churches. We stopped in Troyes to look at the cathedral and the Eglise de la Sainte-Madeleine, two 13th-century churches that stood a few blocks from each other. The churches’ sheer size impressed me. Each spread over a city block. Stained-glass windows covered the walls and the atriums above the naves. Sunlight through the glass threw particolored sheens over pillars and floors centuries of pilgrims had worn smooth.

Despite tourist throngs, a hush fell on the interiors that reminded me of sitting in the older churches in Kansas City. My childhood church, Christ the King, was built in the 1950s, a modernist structure of brick and glass. The moments I stole alone in the church were freeing. Without the prying eyes of parents or priests, I felt free to run the aisles. I made noises that echoed up through the space. I slammed kneelers to the floor. The feeling of getting away with something made my Sundays different. As Boy Scouts, we frequently snuck into the church from our meeting in the basement. The church at night took on an eerie air, frightening or spooky.

The churches my parents grew up in, Guardian Angels and St. James, impressed me more. Their Gothic revival interiors of vaulted ceilings and stained-glass induced a reverence I rarely felt in my home church. My uncle Phil—only six months older than I am—occasionally stole away from the Guardian Angels church basement where Grandpa was conducting some business, and made our way into the nave. The streetlights shone through the stained glass, casting the interior in a ghostly and mysterious air. We didn’t make a sound but listened as the noise from the world outside filtered into our secret.

As a grown-up, I’ve always found peace in churches. Their walls give me respite from the world swirling outside. I enter a meditative space. Sometimes the quiet disturbs me, as if I don’t want to take an inward look for fear of what I might find. But here, again in Troyes, I found that peace I’d always experienced in churches, as well as the reverence that the old, massive structures produce. I wondered about the parishioners who attended mass here. What did they make of tourists and all the picture taking? While the spaces communicated otherworldly endeavor, the tourists’ activities and presences, like ours, seemed profane and ephemeral.

The elaborate stained-glass windows kept Udo and his camera at work. While he wandered the church, Nick, Virginia, and I sat in the nave, watching the tourists and clergy in the cavernous cathedral. As I sat next to Virginia and Nick, I remembered a Pilgerfahrt (pilgrimage) I’d made with a trainload of Germans when I was an intern at the winery in Trier.

Gunther was a career employee at the winery. He surprised me and my English friend Carmel with an invitation to take the pilgrimage. A simple man, he’d worked for the winery for decades as a driver and errand man. He possessed the intelligence and bearing of a teenager, though he was well into his forties. I always liked him. He was kind to me and gentle with others, though sometimes other people at the winery would make sport of him due to his slowness. I hardly ever understood a word he said because of his quiet voice and heavily dialectic. I always had to ask him to repeat himself and go slower. In a halting voice, he said I’d be his roommate on the trip if I wanted to go. I did immediately, but told him I’d never be able to come up with the money for such an adventure. I also said that, being a non-believer, I’d be out of place. Carmel came up to us to discuss the trip. Gunther told her and me that he’d already paid the fees and was just waiting for our assent. He said he wanted us to say yes. He didn’t want to go through the difficulties of getting his money back.

It was early May when we boarded the specially chartered train for 500 religious tourists headed for Rome. Our first day, we traveled the length of the Rhein to Basel and then though the Swiss Alps. The sun was out full, so we could see into the distance when the train traveled up the side of steep valleys. We stopped that night at an Italian town on Lago Maggiore. Our hotel accommodations were luxurious and extravagant. Gunther and I each had a king-sized bed with a pile of pillows. The room stretched out into a suite with an ornate coffee table and armchairs. After testing the mattress and ditching my bag, I walked down to the lake cove, where lights from the bars and casinos shimmered on the black water.

Here I found myself, a 23-year-old kid from a working-class background, living and traveling in Europe. I could hardly believe my luck. I sat on the grassy shore and watched patrons filter out of the bars as they closed one by one. The lights reflected off the lake and contrasted with the deep of night beyond the village. When the last of the bars closed and turned off its lights, I watched the employees sit down to an after-work drink at the tables on the sidewalk under the awning.

The next ten days flew by. We stopped to look at pilgrimage sites and old churches in Turin, Genoa, Pisa, Rome, and Assisi. We filed past saints’ relics—bits and pieces of bones always struck me as ghoulish. We stayed in commodious hotels and bed and breakfasts. One hotel above Assisi stood over an olive grove. The balcony view took in a great swath of rural Umbria, with its rolling hills and variegated fields and vineyards.

By the time we got to a Swiss town right out of Herman Hesse’s novel Peter Camenzind, I’d had enough of the pilgrims and was growing claustrophobic at the press of their presence. Instead of touring a church that day, I struck out on a wooded path behind the village. It rained on and off, and I walked through clouds that hung on the side of the mountain like fluttering sheets. The path wound through wet, piney woods and alpine pastures, where, when the sun came out and the sky cleared, I could see the sky-blue Lake Lucerne stretched out before me, mountains lining its shores. The path ducked back into the dark woods and made its way up into rocky inclines to the edge of a waterfall. There, a memorial stood to hikers who’d died crossing the falls. I was stunned and considered my position.

Gunther and the other pilgrims would be gone for the day. I’d already walked from one end of the town to the other. I had nothing to go back to until evening. I tiptoed my way across the falls on rocks sticking just above the surface of the rushing water. Once I was on the other side, I continued up until the path gave out. I stood and listened to the wind in the pines and the water falling far behind me. I returned to the town as evening fell. When people asked where I was that day, I told them I’d spent the day on the mountain. They already thought I was an odd bird and lifted their eyebrows and said, “Well, then.”

At each successive church tour, I became more self-conscious. I wondered how locals got along with the interlopers infesting their holy sites and daily lives. When we were in Rome, our loud and chatty Germans—self-righteous, demanding, complaining—ached to visit the resting place of Nicholas of Kues, the Renaissance humanist philosopher who became the vicar general of the Papal States in 1459. Kues, now a part of the Mosel town Bernkastel-Kues, was of special interest to my German companions. They connected Nicholas with the once-powerful Diocese of Trier, the Trierer Cathedral, and then to their own lives. Not one, I think, understood Nicholas’ influence on daily life in Germany. The polymath, whom I’d read about over a lonely weekend in Trier, influenced the German university system and its emphasis on the liberal arts. He would encourage the adoption of present-day university systems in Europe, which United States later emulated.

All that was unimportant to my fellow pilgrims, who savored being at the burial site of someone holy in the sight of God. The Germans streamed into the church, the San-Pietro-in-Vincoli, in the middle of a wedding. The priest and the couple stood at the ancient altar. A small group of family and other well-wishers sat in pews in the dark church. All around them our Germans yakked and shot pictures. A few who were oblivious to the ceremony taking place sidled right up next to the priest and started taking pictures as he said vows. I cringed at being part of the crowd interrupting the most important day of the newlyweds’ lives.

Sitting in the Troyes cathedral now, I wondered how the cathedral’s congregation—which should be large, considering the size of the cathedral and its maintenance—got along with tourists. Did they close the church to all but congregants on Sundays? What of funerals and weddings? I sat there. I was part of what I called the “tourist problem.” Just how do you run a church that is also a tourist attraction and pilgrimage site?

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